The flurry of criticism against lawyer Prashant Bhushan for his remarks on Kashmir and then, subsequently, the shrill denunciation of Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti for his alleged vigilantism are illustrative of the pressure on the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to abandon concepts forged in its ideational foundry and embrace those not its own. Both the political Right and Left have mounted this pressure. In responding to them, AAP can’t forget the attributes of its own attraction to the people.
Partly, the pressure on AAP arises from the momentum it has gathered, goading its rivals into attempting to cage the political fledgling insistent on flying in the general elections, regardless of reputations and the enormity of the challenge. This is why the existing political formations have been taunting AAP for its lack of a national vision. Partly, their criticisms arise from their keenness to determine the overall ideological tilt of the Indian polity, to also ensure the mainstream consensus over what constitutes national politics isn’t broken.
Thus, the BJP projects AAP as a disparate group of Maoist and secessionist sympathisers, closet communists opposed to the market, and misguided activists wishing to diminish the Indian State’s power and prestige. The BJP fears AAP could become a seductive alternative idea to its pitch on economic growth which, viewed through saffron-tainted lens, only its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, can ensure.
The Congress, till the Delhi shock, portrayed AAP as a band of rightwing activists surreptitiously assisting the BJP, a lightweight having the temerity to fight in the heavyweight category. Now chastened, it hopes AAP, in the short run, will gather the requisite heft to produce a badly hung Lok Sabha and check Modi’s rise, but will ultimately get entangled in the ropes of power politics, trip and fall ignominiously. The Congress fears that AAP could cannibalise its base among the urban poor.
The Left smugly pats AAP for belatedly realising that its political rise is predicated on taking up the people’s cause, as it did on the water and electricity issues in Delhi, but also lectures it for not perceiving the link between corruption and neo-liberal economic policies, for not firing booming volleys against Modi. AAP threatens the Left with the possibility of eroding the sympathy it commands among the intelligentsia, and challenging its status of being a lodestar of alternative politics.
It is with this backdrop that the controversy over Bhushan’s remark on Kashmir was stoked, even though it marked a measured shift from his earlier position on it. Two years ago, he had favoured a referendum to determine whether or not Kashmir should stay with India. By contrast, this time round, he wanted the impunity the security personnel enjoy under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to be removed, and the deployment of security forces in Kashmir to have the people’s consent.
A pressing need to generate headlines can only prompt a journalist to ask Bhushan a question on Kashmir, for his stance is too well-known to believe he would echo, parrot-like, the mainstream consensus on it. Perhaps such a question was asked to gauge whether his radicalism has been tempered because his party governs Delhi and nurses national ambitions. Implicit in this expectation is that a person in power should speak contrary to his beliefs. This is what TV voices in primetime shows meant as they cautioned Bhushan to speak with responsibility.
Momentarily, a rattled AAP seemed inclined to echoing the national consensus on security until it nuanced its position to insist on the democratic right of individuals to voice their opinion. As an emerging force that propagates participatory democracy and emphasises conscionable political conduct, the AAP couldn’t have but taken this democratic line. Nevertheless, the Bhushan controversy underscores the perils of responding to the agendas of political rivals — in this case the BJP — whose endeavour would be to reduce AAP to a poor imitation of them, thus rendering easy the task of tackling it.
In order to not resemble others, AAP will have to sharply portray its attributes about which the Indian voter is visibly excited. Its uniqueness stems from according primacy to what is local and immediate, namely, the provision of water, electricity, health, education and security through transparent, responsive, and clean governance; of promising to vest the oversight of local development in the inhabitants who stand to gain from it; and of holding out hope to engage citizens in democratic governance through the five years of election cycle.
Ironically, it was in response to the pressure from his constituency — the local — that Bharti mounted pressure on the Delhi Police to raid a place allegedly running a prostitution and drug racket, triggering a crisis underlying which is the issue of whether or not an elected government should control the city police. In the emerging conflicting narratives, Bharti’s enthusiasm does seem to have an echo of vigilantism, endorsed though it has been by his constituency, but it also points to the patronage the police provide to dubious but powerful interests. AAP’s politics of making governance count at the local level will bring it into conflict with the existing arrangement and trigger controversies. Nevertheless, AAP must not forget that the local is also the site for fostering democratic spirit and adhering to norms, for this is precisely where India resides.
Indeed, as a veritable tide of people join AAP, bringing with them contrarian ideas, its leaders should remember they have grown big because they thought small, for giving primacy to the local over the national. This is what has made AAP a seductive idea. Their national vision must be refracted through the prism of the local. After all, the tortoise won the race against the hare because it ran like the tortoise.
Ajaz Ashraf is a Delhi-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal